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Editorial: Voters should reject amendment giving Legislature control over courts

The best reason to vote “No” on Question 2, the proposed constitutional amendment giving the New Hampshire Legislature control over the rules that govern the state’s judicial system, is that the amendment’s proponents can point to no problem that needs to be remedied.

Constitutions should not be changed on a whim and a fancy. Voters should approve amendments only when the reason to do so is clear and compelling.

That’s not the case with this amendment. It arose not from need but from the animus of lawmakers who disagree not with the court’s rules but with some of its decisions. That’s particularly true of the current Legislature, which chafes at any check on its power by the courts or the governor. But those checks, and the separation of powers between the three branches of government, are the fundamental safeguard against the tyranny of a legislative majority.

What’s at stake with the amendment is the fate of an independent judiciary free of politics. Imagine if lawmakers, by manipulating the court’s rules, were allowed to sanction judges not for poor performance but for failing to see things their way. Make no mistake, if court decisions were as controversial as, say, the Claremont school funding rulings, that’s what lawmakers would attempt to do.

The court is a co-equal branch of government but one whose power is subject to an arguably greater one, the Legislature’s power of the purse. Lawmakers have under-funded the state’s judicial system for years to the detriment of the courts and the ability of citizens to receive justice promptly. To grant them the authority to set both the court’s budget and its rules gives lawmakers far too much power over another branch of government. It could conceivably mean that court rules would change with every change of the Legislature. Citizens and lawyers alike would not know from one session to the next what was required of them. Consistency would be lost.

The authors of New Hampshire’s Constitution wrote that the three branches of government ought to be kept “as separate from, and independent of, each other as the nature of a free government will admit.”

A “Yes” vote on Question 2 would greatly shrink that separation and put the impartial administration of justice citizens deserve at risk. On Nov. 6 the amendment should be resoundingly rejected.

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